This is a question raised by people all over the world. As one may observe that most Chinese people living in foreign countries speak Cantonese more than Mandarin, and the history of Cantonese is actually longer than that of Mandarin. So why does Mandarin win out and Cantonese as the standard spoken version of Chinese?
Easier to Learn
The fact that Cantonese is hard to speak is the first barrier for it to win out. There are 9 tones in Cantonese (in some systems, there are 6 tones) compared with 4 tones in Mandarin. Cantonese also has more consonants and vowels than Mandarin. All these factors make it hard for foreigners or even non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese to learn Cantonese.
Also, the widespread promotion of Mandarin being the official language by the Chinese government around the time of the establishment of the People Republic of China made it common for everyone in China to learn it. The extensive promotion of Mandarin was a governmental movement to standardize the language as a measure to solidify the country where there were so many local dialects that poses barriers for people in different provinces to communicate. Since the language was commonly used and spoken by government officials, in TV programs, radio programs, Chinese citizens’ daily lives are filled with Mandarin. They also view Mandarin as the “commonly used language” (as the meaning of “Mandarin” in Chinese suggests). Thus it gives Mandarin an image of being authoritative, official, governmental and also practical.
Simpler even in the Written Forms
Another point to note is that the development of Mandarin was also associated with the emergence of Simplified Chinese, the written form of Mandarin. When the Chinese government introduced Mandarin, they also introduced simplified Chinese (a simpler written version of the Chinese language), and it just made the whole situation resemble a “simplified language movement”. On the contrary, Cantonese speakers (especially those living in Hong Kong and Macau) write in Traditional Chinese of which the characters and strokes are much harder for the speakers to write and to remember than Mandarin. As a result, not only was Mandarin easy to speak (4 tones only), but also, the written language (Simplified Chinese) was easy to write. Everything was simpler and easier for Chinese people to learn and practice. Now, as time goes by and China’s economy developing fast, everything in Mandarin is also simpler and easier for foreigners to learn, than Cantonese.
Cantonese is Undergoing Lots of Challenges
Also, most of the Cantonese-speaking cities like Hong Kong and Macau are undergoing lots of cultural crashes by other immigrants and expats who travel and live there, this poses a big challenge to the originality of the Cantonese language. There are too many different slangs, proverbs and idioms. Some of those slangs are a mixture of English and Chinese. When this adds with the difficult 9 tones and the numerous consonants and vowels, the pronunciation and grammar structure only become more complicated for people to master.
In the long run, Mandarin will win out Cantonese because of its simpler language structure and governmental promotion as the commonly used language. And remember, Chinese government’s influence is spreading around the world because of the booming Chinese economy. Who are going to speak Cantonese in the future? Only the people in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong (and some cities in Guangxi) will. And these minority would face challenges of their language being outpaced by Mandarin. Sad, but it’s the reality.
You might be interested in knowing Why Hong Kong People Hate Speaking Mandarin to Non-Chinese Speakers even though lots of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong people are learning Mandarin.
If you’re confused about the spoken and written forms of the Chinese language, read my another piece, Confusion about Cantonese, Mandarin, Traditional and Simplified Chinese, you might find it helpful.